March 19, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Philippians 3:10-17
Psalm 1
Luke 2:42-52

“Intentional Faith Development”

I had the privilege this weekend, of being able to sit in on a number of Camp Christopher interviews for counsellors for this summer. We interviewed quite a few young people from Saskatoon, a couple by Skype from Prince Albert, and there are still a few more interviews to do in Regina.

And I found it most interesting to listen to them answer questions like, “Why do you want to work at a Christian camp like Camp Christopher?” and “What is the most important message about God that every camper should leave with?” and “What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the summer?”

It was wonderful to hear about their love for children, their enthusiasm about spending the summer outdoors, and their excitement about the friendships they will develop at camp. But what struck me most was when they talked about “wanting to grow in faith” at camp.

There was one young man who particularly impressed me in his interview. He talked about going to church was he was a kid. His grandparents used to take him every Sunday, and he loved it. But when he was eleven, his parents decided that they didn’t believe in God, and they put a stop to his church attendance. So, after that, attending Christian camps in the summer became his only opportunity to hear Bible stories, and experience worship, and learn to pray… until recently.

And at 16, he decided himself to go back to church again, and youth group, and try to pick up where he left off. He was really nervous about the interview, I think, because he figured he wouldn’t “know” enough about Christianity yet to be a counsellor. But he was really honest, saying, “I’m just getting started. And I want to learn.”

And if my own experience of working at a Christian camp as a teenager is any indication, then I think being at Camp Christopher all summer will be the perfect place for him to learn, grow, ask questions, and explore his faith. And his desire to learn and grow will be a blessing to the other staff and to his campers too.

I think that the essence of today’s theme, “Intentional Faith Development,” the third practice of fruitful congregations, is developing an attitude of “I’m just getting started. And I want to learn.”

In his book on the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” Robert Schnase argues that growth in Christ spans a lifetime. And he points to one of the most influential early Christians and teachers of the faith – the Apostle Paul – and notices that even he was on a journey of continually learning and growing in faith.

Writing to the Church at Philippi, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal.” You see, faith is not something that we get all at once, but faith moves, grows, changes, and matures when we open our minds and hearts to God’s Word and the Spirit’s guidance.

When you reflect on your journey of faith thus far, I wonder what experiences you remember that shaped your faith. Most of us can begin by naming some church programs – Church School, VBS, Christian camps, youth or adult Bible studies, church membership classes, spiritual retreats, church conferences, lay education courses (or seminary training, for some of us).

Or we might think of books that we have read that had a profound impact on us – not only the Bible itself, but devotional books, theological books, and other books that raised questions and helped us to think deeply about the meaning of our lives and the reality of God.

And then there are the life experiences that challenge and test our faith as well. I wouldn’t say that God sends us challenges in order to test our faith, but when bad things do happen, God so often strengthens us to make it through them. And when we reflect back on our health crises, or grief experiences, or relationship difficulties, or or employment challenges, very often we notice that we have come to believe more strongly, drawn closer to God in prayer, and perhaps learned to recognize God’s presence and love in the midst of daily life.

Of course, we are grateful for the all the ways that God has drawn us into relationship with him and guided us in following the way of Jesus with our lives. But Robert Schnase points out that growth in faith does not come easily or automatically, but requires placing ourselves in community to learn the faith with others. In other words, we need to be intentional about it – both as individual Christians and as congregations.

That’s what Lenten disciplines are all about. Whether we have committed to daily prayer, joined a Bible study, or chosen to #Read4Reconciliation during this season, Lent is about intentionally turning ourselves away from sin and selfishness once again, and turning to God with open hearts and minds to be taught and guided in our lives of faith.

As a Methodist Bishop, Schnase is quick to look to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for guidance. And he finds there the encouragement not only for intentional faith development, but intentional faith development in the context of the community of faith: “Wesley commended the practices of public and family prayers, the searching of Scriptures, the receiving of Holy Communion, and the practice of works of mercy – all in supportive community. We learn the life of Christ and will of God by studying God’s Word and through experience with other people of faith…

“The practice of learning in community gives disciples a network of support, encouragement, and direction as we seek to grow in Christ. As we consciously appropriate the stories of faith with others, we discover that our questions, doubts, temptations, and missteps are not unusual but are part of the journey. We are emboldened to new ways of thinking about God and to new ways of exercising our faith in daily life.”

A few years ago, we had a young man come to join our community here at St. Andrew’s during the short time he was living in Saskatoon. He had been curious about Christianity for a number of years. He had read the Bible cover to cover, and watched preachers online and on TV quite a bit as well. But this was the first time that he was part of a church.

And during that year or so that Andreas was with us, we were reminded of gift we have in the opportunity to learn and grow in faith together. Our Sunday morning Bible study group was infused with energy as we grappled with his questions and introduced him to life in the believing community. And those of us with many years of church experience grew in faith also because he was with us, because we spent time with him and took him seriously.

Schnase says that “Maturation in Christ is always about content AND relationship. Ideas change people, and people change people; and God uses both together to work on our behalf and to shape our lives in the image of Christ. Transformation comes through learning in community.”

Jesus knew that. He demonstrated his desire to learn and grow in community when, as a twelve-year-old, he stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem to discuss and debate and explore with the rabbis that gathered there.

And when, as an adult, he began his own teaching ministry, he called together a community of disciples who learned together (through stories and teachings, as well as through watching Jesus’ example, and being sent out to actually join in his active ministry).

As individuals, we are invited especially during this Lenten season to be intentional about our faith development. We are encouraged to make commitments and try to stick to them. We are encouraged to set ourselves where God can shape us (whether that’s in a Bible study group, or in a theological course, or at a Christian camp, or simply in the church choir where we spend time together singing our faith). We are encouraged to set ourselves where God can shape us, intentionally opening ourselves to God’s Word and call.

And as a congregation, we need to be intentional too. Robert Schnase argues that “Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations practice Intentional Faith Development” because “the followers of Jesus mature in faith by learning together in community.” These churches “offer high quality learning experiences that help people understand Scripture, faith, and life in the supportive nurture of caring relationships.”

So, as we continue to reflect, pray, and discuss what God may be calling our congregation to do next, as we seek to become more fruitful… today, let us consider our practice of intentional faith development. Let’s take a few minutes to reflect quietly on the questions on the green inserts in your bulletins. And after that, we’ll spend some time in discussion with our neighbours in the pew. Don’t forget to record your ideas so that they can be gathered at the end of the service, and added to our growing collection of good ideas and possibilities.